Military Suicides Top Combat Deaths – But Only Because the Wars Are Ending

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Army photo

A soldier is buried in the rain at Arlington National Cemetery.

On January 14, immediately after the release of the military’s 2012 suicide data, many in the media repeatedly aimed at a single target. According to the Associated Press, the number of active-duty suicides in 2012 reached an all-time record—with the 349 self-inflicted deaths “far exceeding American combat deaths in Afghanistan” during the same period.

The storyline of more troops committing suicide than being the killed by the enemy sounded compelling and it carried the news cycle—with outlets like the AP, ABC, and NBC covering it from that angle.

However, the lead aside, the reversal is not due primarily to a wild spike in active-duty suicides (though they were up, troublingly, 16% over 2011). Rather, the reversal is due primarily to the fact that the war in Iraq is over and the war in Afghanistan is entering its final stages.

chart:bf

There are simply far fewer troops dying in combat now than at any time in nearly a decade. So it’s only natural that the number of suicides would overtake the number of combat deaths at some point.

As you can see in the accompanying chart, it appears we’ve reached that point.

As more and more American troops exit Afghanistan in the next year, those casualty figures will fall even further, eventually reaching zero. The number of suicides will likely continue to rise for several years—even after troops leave Afghanistan—as many war veterans lose their sense of meaning and purpose. And then, they too will begin to fall.

Unfortunately, the number of suicides—unlike combat deaths—will never reach zero. And this means from today until the beginning of the next major American conflict, we will deal with more suicide in the ranks than combat deaths.

The end of these wars is a good thing. But it means the work of friends, families, communities, non-profits, and government is nowhere close to being complete when it comes to caring for the troops coming home.

Brandon Friedman is a Truman National Security Fellow and author of The War I Always Wanted. He worked at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs from 2009 to 2012. Follow him on Twitter at @BFriedmanDC.

5 comments
GeorgeD.Patrin
GeorgeD.Patrin

The point made by Micmac needs to be addressed by military leaders. It is what I observed as well while I was on active duty and since my son's suicide. However, Congress needs to address it in kind. If the military is to retain active duty troops being affected by stressors, then the numbers of active duty need to include those on "medical hold" while new diagnoses and treatment plans are worked out. We also must agree on how long we will retain a troop on active duty for rehabilitation. While in therapy, the slot cannot filled in the war-fighting unit, affecting the mission of the Unit(s). What has happened is the troop (of any Service) is shifted to the VA on discharge, and a 'crack' appears in the earth for the troop and family with all the delays and lack of communication and continuity between the DoD and the VA. Secretary Shinsecki, to give him credit, has admitted our 'warm hand-offs' are not what they need to be. The author's comment "Unfortunately, the number of suicides—unlike combat deaths—will never reach zero" is worrisome and angers families in grief. The suicides will never reach zero as long as we continue to use therapeutic techniques and policies that created the problem, true, but programs and organizations exist where a 'zero' suicide rate has been accomplished (I.e. Detroit Henry Ford Clinic). We just need to heed what they are doing and change our emphasis to zero tolerance for suicide and stop blaming the person who succumbs to it after they see no help in sight, lost in the 'dark hole' of despair. This is a societal cultural issue not unique to the military. We need more people who have not yet been directly affected by one of these tragedies to get informed and join the discussion.

WarriorRRC
WarriorRRC

I am a retired army war veteran, and believe me, unless you have intimately experienced combat, you have no idea what these warriors are experiencing. War intrudes the psyche like no other trauma. I have spent the past four years helping veterans from 4 generations including WWII veterans who continue to sleep with the lights on, or drink themselves to sleep, and I don't charge them a dime; by the way do yourself a favor and check out this press release. For immediate release January 2, 2013Contact: Antione A. Johnson, 719-640-8158 Guide to Healing for Returning War Veterans Just Published on AmazonFamilies of combat veterans have struggled to piece together why their loved ones are so different after returning from war, if they will ever be the same, or if they will ever get better. The warriors themselves struggle with the internal workings that interrupt their thoughts and rob them of peace and well-being. Award-winning special educator and U.S. Army veteran Antione A. Johnson studied a century of PTSD research and developed a research-based model of healing for students diagnosed with serious emotional and behavioral disorders. From that success, he developed a holistic healing program for warriors and has now written a short, easy-to-understand guide to that program, created out of a passion and purpose to end the anguish, guilt, and hopeless plight of our nation’s finest.

MicMac
MicMac

I'm not sure what the authors point was/is... However, It is my opinion that most people are in denial about the sorry state of the current U.S. Military, especially the "smart" (sic) people. who never spent one day in uniform and have been blaming the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, aka GWB wars, as the main reason why so many military members have been killing themselves since 2001. The fact of the matter is that the wars have very little to do with why service members have been killing themselves. It has to do now with how the military and society treats service members. Expendable. A liability that must be minimized.

Every single military person that has indicated/implied/suggested any thoughts of suicide to me in the course of the last five years, in each and every case it had nothing to do with the wars in Afghanistan or Iraq. However, In each and every case the service member had an "arbitrary and capricious" or "toxic" officer in charge, who was deliberately trying to discharged the Service Member without due process, specifically, trying to get the service member out before they could be entered into the Disability Evaluation System (DES).

There is absolutely no excuse for any of this other than a complete break down of the Military to hold those in charge responsible for their actions and a deliberate institutional mind set to deny anyone who has been injured or becomes sick a proper and complete evaluation under the law. The current Military leadership allows the toxic officers to get away with this and turns a blind eye this in order to save the DoD money. Pure and simple. This is what today's military has involved into.

Of the 2676 suicides in the Military since 2001 to the present, less than 90% of those service members were ever in actual combat and most were never even deployed to the CENTCOM AOR. Our total combat losses in Iraq and Afghanistan to date are 4977. That means the Military has lost more than 50% of the amount of actual combat deaths due to suicide and 90% of those were never in combat. You have to be a complete idiot to not see what is going on.
It's about money and getting rid of as much people as you can, as fast as you can and don't let the door hit you on the way out....

A Veteran is nothing more than a liability that needs to be minimized.

SkipLucia
SkipLucia

A deployment should me limited to 9 or 10 months and each soldier's tour should be determined on an individual basis depending on each MOS. The higher the MOS's with possibilities for PTSD the fewer the tours. The DOD and other commitees say that they care and are concerned for our soldiers,ppffftt,they show and do little to head PTSD off at the pass. Yes, everyone is prone to such a horrible disorder,but, the depth of it could be alot less truamatic...too the point of suicide is sad. Just think of all of the soldiers who have mental health issues that aren't mentioned.

Sure, the DOD is concerned now because the damage is already done and as far as they're concerned,"Heck yeah! if a soldier wants to do 3,4,5 tours 12 and 14 months at a time,by all means! you're a great soldier doing your country proud!" You can't really tell me that the DOD/Pentagon didn't see the slightest potential for problems here!!!??? The House Armed Services Commitee and the Dept. of Defense appears to be doing alot of "shoot from the hip" bubble gum and shoe string management. God bless our troops, God bless America.... Shame on our defense leaders!!!

qq99
qq99

@MicMac Good post.  The author says "war veterans lose their sense of meaning and purpose."  That's not inevitable unless they choose to pay attention to liberal rags like Time and the fools who endorse their point of view.


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